In 1979, archaeologists in Crete discovered a teenager’s skeleton, sacrificed about four millennia ago, limbs bound up like a bull’s.
One wonders what future generations will make of how today’s America binds its teenagers — its youngest adults, or perhaps its oldest children — not physically, but intellectually.
Our age is the age of stretching. As we enjoy our last physical growth spurts, we sense our characters changing, too. We are becoming new people; we wonder who. We rush through this world of thoughts and challenges, seeing it now as ours.
The college-admissions process transforms this time of expanding into a time of contracting. Struggles with ideas shrink to APs, SATs and GPAs. Identities shrivel to 500 words, essay-ready. These factors’ vapidity is matched only by the significance of what rides on them: admission to college. Test-review courses and resume-padding activities swallow mellow afternoons that in an earlier era were for enjoying the outdoors, coming to know friends better, listening to yourself think. If we do not have this time as teenagers, when do we have it?
The effects of the process on young people — us who will soon inherit our parents’ world — represent a genuine crisis. Now, showing how this daunting feature of American adolescence has finally hit critical mass, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia have addressed it — by abolishing early admission.
But ending EA, either to mitigate stress or to buoy low-income applicants, is a Band-Aid solution at best. At worst, it is a smug self-pat on the back without honestly looking at the problem. Distinguishing Yale’s approach from Harvard’s, President Levin has preserved EA, explaining, “What is really needed is … to increase the pool of low-income students who apply and strengthening the financial aid packages they receive.” For the Tom and Daisy Buchanans of the world, if the right phone call can win you admission, it can win it via EA, via regular admission or in July off the wait list.
Scrapping EA does not solve the problem of stress, either. The issue is not that high school is too rigorous, but that high school embraces the wrong kind of rigor. There is no harm in rewarding those who best fit Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage: “grace under pressure.” But in high schools, grace and pressure have less and less to do with love of learning for its own sake. Increasingly, they preach dreary worship to the idols of standardized knowledge-gulping.
What does an EA-free world look like? There are the same test-prep courses, which embitter students — and fleece parents, if they can afford to be fleeced. There are the same mind-numbing AP classes, teaching to the test, collapsing into doldrums afterward. Students still feel obliged to take them, lest they appear to have turned down a challenge. There is the same resume-stuffing, the same frenzied essay-writing. But now, the deadline for it all is in December, not November.
There is one other consequence: the end of a reward to students who pine most for one particular college, and who worked the hardest in high school, at least by all the standard benchmarks. Regardless of whether colleges ought to reward these students, even Harvard must admit that ending EA cured a symptom, not the disease.
Yale might use its influence to re-invigorate high schools with passion, showing students long deprived of it that what interests you can matter, and that learning about it can light you up.
Imagine if Yale professors conducted a thorough study of American high schools, interviewing teachers and students and analyzing AP courses, remedial classes and everything in between. The study would make recommendations to infuse all these classes with urgency: the urgency to wrestle with thoughts, to sustain humanity’s millennia-long conversation with itself. Shifting the focus from learning how to test to learning how to think, the study would dethrone the College Board as the authority behind “knowledge,” crowning instead the discoveries of the student’s own electrified intellect.
Every school would want to join “the Yale Plan.” If Yale held workshops with teachers, every school would want to come. Applicants to college would admire the school that cares about their zeal for ideas even before they matriculate. Time Magazine — whose Aug. 21 headline declared, “Who Needs Harvard?” — might instead explain why everybody needs Yale.
Most significantly, high-school students would benefit. No plan can inspire everybody, nor does Yale have the means to examine and aid literally every high school. But the idea would resonate — all the more for each student in whose life Yale made a difference — that what we do here at Yale is not just about educating the selected few. It is about making America stronger, one inspired mind at a time.
Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College. This is his first regular column.